It’s a little funny to hear the Thunder talk so often about “early energy” and “bringing effort from tipoff.” That’s often the easy excuse for a slow start — that they’re flat.
But that’s also what one might call a trend.
Wednesday against the Grizzlies, the Thunder actually started well. The team will tell you it was simply because they brought more effort and energy. But in reality, it was probably more because the Grizzlies starting lineup matches up with Oklahoma City’s better than most. With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, it makes a whole lot of sense to have Kendrick Perkins on the floor. At least in terms of one end of the floor.
Remove Wednesday’s game and you know what the Thunder’s worst lineup has been for OKC this season in terms of plus/minus? The starting five — Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins. The first seven minutes of Wednesday’s game, the Thunder were a +3 with their starting five, and for the game, that lineup was a +3. Granted, the sample size is still thin with only nine games in the books, bit for the season the starting unit is overall a -7 in about 149 minutes.
By far, the Thunder’s starting five is their worst offensive lineup, with an offensive rating of just 93.0. Defensively, it’s pretty good, but scoring matters and OKC’s starting five is hilariously bad at it. It was an issue during the Finals, one that almost everyone recognized.
Before Wednesday’s game, I asked Scott Brooks about how much he pays attention to plus/minus lineup data. His first answer he was a bit tongue-in-cheek.
“I can barely keep up with my daughter’s sixth grade work and all these plus/minus things and my son, he’s already in the tenth grade and I can’t even help him out,” he said. “These lineups, plus/minuses and this and that, I wish I was smart enough to really look at it but all I know if Kevin has a bad minus, he’s still going to play the next game.”
But Brooks said he does use it. But he doesn’t rely on it. Doesn’t live by it, doesn’t believe in it enough to make decisions based off of it.
“I mean, I use it. I’m making a joke of it, but I use it as much as I can,” he said. “But I use other things, I can’t [just use plus/minus]. That’s so hard to do. If I knew the guy was going to be a minus I wouldn’t have played him. But if I knew that I wouldn’t do what I’m doing now, I’d be doing a lot of things and not basketball.
“I definitely see some trends and look at it and try and study it as much as I can and gather and internalize and much as I can, but I also have the eye test is so much important cause it’s real game stuff,” Brooks continued. “You don’t have time to look at the plus/minus in the life game situation but there are things that stand out and have been a bother. I try and mix things up and put another guy in or give an extra minute or two there with another lineup.”
It’s a little ironic that Brooks is a “feel” guy considering he coaches for an organization that is deep into statistical analysis. But that just shows that there’s often a separation between the actual court and the front office. Sam Presti uses stats to assemble a team. Scott Brooks doesn’t really use them to run one.
The Thunder’s best lineup by far this season has been the go-to crunchtime lineup: Westbrook, Martin, Sefolosha, Durant and Ibaka. Per 48 minutes that lineup is on average a +26.9 so far this season and overall, a +14 in 25 minutes. OKC’s next best two lineups: Sub Collison for Ibaka and that group is a +13 in 15 minutes and sub Maynor for Westbrook and Collison for Ibaka and that group is a +11 in 14 minutes.
Now, there is a danger in getting carried away with plus/minus, especially when the same size is this small. So what about last season? In 664 minutes, OKC’s starting five was a +81, the highest gross plus/minus on the team. In the playoffs though in 264 minutes, it was a -22.
I’m not necessarily advocating a permanent starting lineup change. What I would support is some flexibility with the starting five. Instead of being married to it, adjust and adapt.
One issue is, if you don’t start Perk, what do you do with him? Other than using him as a specialist in specific matchups, what spot would it make sense to bring him off the bench? The answer there is pretty much no spot. Brooks loves consistency and stability and he loves the toughness and presence Perk brings. But instead of stubbornly rolling out that starting five regardless of everything, flexing a little makes sense. The whole point is to win games. Not to make players happy or not hurt feelings.
Some people look at Perk and wonder why he ever plays. He has a very distinct value and ignoring that based on the box score is dumb. There are a lot of instances where he holds the Thunder back, but clearly this Thunder team is very good and that’s more because of Perk and less in spite of him. It’s easy to forget what a role he played in the four wins against the Spurs or how well he defended Andrew Bynum or how well he likely will defend Dwight Howard.
Before you yell about Perk remember this: The Thunder probably aren’t in the Finals last year if he’s not on the team. I don’t disagree that he should’ve played far less in the Finals, but that’s more Brooks’ fault and less Perk’s. You can’t put a player in a situation that he’s not equipped for and gripe when he doesn’t succeed. Doesn’t mean that you give him carte blanche and don’t adjust things though.
Brooks said last night he wouldn’t change the starting five based on data, and he shouldn’t.
“It would be a feel thing, if we’re not doing well or if a guy needs a change in scenery, but never off of a plus/minus,” he said. Basing it solely off metrics would be as silly as not basing it off them at all. Ideally, you use the stats to merge what you’re seeing and therefore, you come to a more educated conclusion.
One thing the Thunder have been over the past few years is consistent. Under pressure to insert James Harden into the starting five, Brooks remained defiant, and was proven mostly right by it. And it’s a little hard to argue with his methods — the Thunder were in the Finals last year and while the starting five performed poorly against Miami’s smallball, that wasn’t the really OKC lost in five games. So again, advocating for a change, I am not.
But it would be wise to keep an eye on these lineups. It’s actually far less complicated than sixth grade math. I don’t even really remember how to do pre-algebra, but I know that a +10 is better than a -10. And Scott Brooks should too.